February 13, 2011 Subject:
The Women of Cairo
The Women of Cario, Scenes of Life in the Orient is a travel book by French Romanticist Gerard de Nerval, first published in 1846. It describes a 1-year trip to Cairo, Egypt and other places in the Ottoman Empire. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Islamic Orient was a great mystery to Europeans giving rise to myths fueled by tales in the Arabian Nights. There were myths about the Harem, the oriental despot, the mysteries of Egypt ("Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair"), the stories of the Crusades, oriental virgins and slaves, etc. Romantic-era authors such as Lord Byron, Shelley, Walter Scott, Coleridge, Thomas Quincey (opium eater) and so on lived out the myth of the Orient in works and person. Nerval was central in that tradition and his journey is revealing for its myth-making and myth-busting.
The first volume of this unabridged translation centers mostly on Cairo. Before leaving Europe, Nerval had been dumped by his love interest, an actress. Arriving in Egypt, Nerval begins searching for a new female companion, which legally could only be achieved through marriage. He ends up buying a slave woman who is from India, but not before going on one adventure after the next trying to find (or buy) his new mate in the warrens of Cairo. It's a fascinating look at old customs, largely hidden from public view, some of which are funny (Nerval has been compared with Charlie Chaplin) and other scenes are disturbing (the sale of pre-pubescent girls to amuse the buyers "darkest desires"). Nerval describes scenes in flowery romanticized imagery, but also dispels some myths about harems and slaves. As it turns out women have much more control over their lives, even the slave girl pushes Nerval around and balks at the idea she might be set free (a terrible fate in her mind since she would then have to actually work for a living). Other memorable scenes are climbing the Great Pyramids with the help of four Bedouins, two on top who pulled your arms and two on bottom who push upward, block after block, until you reach the top. There were no other tourists around. The Sphinx still laid mostly buried in the sand. A book filled with fascinating little details of Egypt before the modern era.